Demolition to change, mayor says Schmoke reiterates confidence in Henson as commissioner

'No simple answers'

New law would split sale of property from settling debts

April 10, 1997|By John B. O'Donnell and Ronnie Greene | John B. O'Donnell and Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke acknowledged yesterday the need for a strategic plan to deal with the tens of thousands of vacant houses in Baltimore and vowed to improve the city's handling of liens that often fuel abandonment -- and strangle redevelopment.

Schmoke said a three-part series in The Sun that described the haphazard city approach to a swelling inventory of abandoned houses has prompted a search for solutions.

"It just underscores the fact that dealing with the vacant house problem is very complex and there are no simple answers to it," the mayor said in an interview, acknowledging that "some changes" must be made in city practices.

"The article does point out areas where we can make improvements, and so all of us ought to learn from those points."

The mayor also said he has asked for a review of cases cited by The Sun where individual homeowners were victimized by the city's housing enforcement apparatus.

"I wanted to find out how we treated them," said the mayor, who expects to get a report soon.

Still, Schmoke gave a ringing endorsement to Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, saying, "I think that we're doing a lot of good things out there, and I certainly have a great deal of confidence in our commissioner."

In an interview late yesterday, Henson suggested that the series -- not his department -- was off track. "What is it I've done wrong you want me to correct?" he asked. "If there is a point to the series, I don't know what it is."

The Sun described how a housing department campaign -- initiated by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1986 -- to stop the ruin of neighborhoods by patching, boarding and demolishing rundown dwellings actually helped spread the blight and fuel a fever of abandonment.

The series also recounted how a small circle of contractors had been enriched by the city's spotty practice of demolitions. Schmoke defended the practice as a boost to minority contractors.

When the city boards up, repairs or demolishes a house, it bills the owner and attaches the debt to the property as a lien. The liens carry an annual interest rate of nearly 20 percent.

With the interest rates tolling, The Sun reported, the bill often overtakes the value of the property -- stifling new investment.

More than 2,800 city residential properties are now saddled with liens that equal or exceed their assessed value. Those debts alone total $52 million.

While the city's official inventory of vacant houses stands at 11,000, estimates of the actual count range as high as 30,000. Schmoke said the General Assembly adopted legislation this year giving city housing code inspectors greater authority to deal with derelict properties.

The legislature also passed a measure sought by Comptroller Joan M. Pratt to make redevelopment of lien-ridden properties easier by relaxing existing criteria for separating the debt from the land -- so new owners can acquire property without bearing the burden of another's debts.

The idea is simple: On one hand, the city would hire private debt collectors to pursue previous owners for overdue bills. On the other, it would permit the city to sell the property at auction to a new owner, who wouldn't be saddled with debts.

"We want to hold the previous owner accountable," Pratt said yesterday. "Yet we don't want to hold the property hostage."

Officials of several city departments will meet today to work out guidelines for the expanded practice -- known as lien release -- which will streamline an existing policy that is rarely used. After it's on the books, Pratt said, the city will advertise the new policy.

"Developers have an interest in redeveloping vacant houses, but they cannot afford to pay the liens and redevelop the property," Pratt said. "Before, there was a barrier for developers."

In recent years, the city has eliminated or released only a handful of the thousands of liens now encumbering properties.

Meanwhile, a citizens housing group plans to address the vacant housing crisis during a conference this month.

The Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) conference will be held April 19 from 9 a.m. to 1: 30 p.m. at the Baltimore City College High School Library. The title: "Baltimore's Vacant Housing. A New Look at the Issues & Opportunities."

The keynote speaker is Douglas Rae, a Yale University professor who has studied cities, like Baltimore, that have lost thousands of residents. Housing Commissioner Henson is scheduled to speak.

The idea, organizers say, is to raise awareness -- and prompt discussion leading toward solutions.

"We must approach the vacant housing problem in a new way," said Ruth Wolf Rehfeld, chair of the CPHA Housing Committee. "There are a lot of simple answers to the problem -- and they're all wrong."

Schmoke, too, cited the complexity of the problem several times in his interview, citing, for example, the difficulty prospective buyers of vacant properties encounter in getting an actual picture of the lien situation.

Often such investors cannot figure out just how large the liens may be.

One city effort under way, he said, is to "make the information on liens more accessible -- readily available to the public."

In addition, he said, "It's clear that we're going to need a citywide strategy on demolition -- but it's pretty difficult because we just don't have many complete blocks that we can tear down."

And, he suggested, the liens -- as well as the vacant houses themselves -- pose a real dilemma.

"If we announced we weren't going to put liens on," he said, "we'd get more abandonment. If we told neighbors we weren't going to demolish, we'd get pickets."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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